It was early Spring 2021. I picked up an advance reader copy (ARC) of The Making of Biblical Womanhood and walked down the hall.
“Dean Lyon,” I said, knocking on the open door. “I don’t know what is going to happen, but I think you should know what I have written.” Professor of Sociology, Dean of the Graduate School, and Vice Provost at Baylor University, Larry Lyon has been my direct boss since 2018. He took the book from me and read it. Then he preordered copies for everyone in the Graduate School. Then he sent me a youtube link.
“Beth, you’ve got to watch this Designing Women episode,” he said.
I laughed. I was so relieved by his response. Of course I would watch it! I remembered Designing Women from my teenage years. Set in Atlanta in the late 1980s, the storyline revolves around 4 white women and 1 black man who run an interior design business. I’d watched it a few times; I’d even learned the plot of several episodes—thanks to one of my high school friends who never missed it. But I didn’t recognize this particular show. So I looked it up (season 2, episode 20—”How Great Thou Art”), read the description, and hit play on the link.
Honestly, though, I didn’t pay attention. My book launch was in just a few weeks, and I had so much to do, including an interview with NPR that had just been scheduled. I was juggling emails and graduate student workshops and dissertation defenses and podcasts. I remember the episode playing in the background as I worked. I even remember Julia Sugarbaker singing “How Great Thou Art”. But the dialogue just didn’t register.
Until last week.
Last week I was tagged in a twitter thread referencing the same episode. I screenshot the message and emailed it to Dean Lyon. Once again, he responded:
“You’ve got to watch it Beth.”
So this time I did. I put in my earbuds and watched every scene. Then I watched it two more times, just to make sure I had heard accurately. I had. Y’all, it is just a remarkable episode.
Take, for example, the scene where one of the main characters in the show, Charlene, tells her SBC pastor that she can no longer attend a church that rejects women in ministry (and thanks to Designing Women online providing a transcript).
Charlene: For the past nine years I’ve come to you with whatever problems, worries or grief I’ve had in my life, and I really appreciate the way you’ve looked after me. But, I don’t think I can do that anymore.
Reverend Nunn: Charlene, you don’t mean that.
Charlene: I’ve been up all night, and I just can’t figure out how I can belong to a church that doesn’t think I am fit to preach God’s word.
Reverend Nunn: You want to be a minister?
Charlene: Well, I’ve never told anyone this before, but as a matter of fact I did. When I was about six or seven, I got my first Bible. It had my name embossed in gold across the front. My parents gave it to me the night I was baptised. I’ll never forget it came with this beautiful cardboard bookmark that had Jesus with a pink halo painted on it. I don’t know — there was something about the way the light shown in that picture — I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I thought, “Boy, that’s for me.” I was gonna travel the world preaching and teaching — maybe even become a saint.
Reverend Nunn: What happened?
Charelene: I don’t know. I guess I figured I couldn’t make saint. Anyway, my point is, I had that dream because no one told me I couldn’t. But what about all those other little girls out there, hundreds of them, just waiting to become ministers and spend their lives preaching God’s word — except for the fact that you and a bunch of other people got together and decided that God doesn’t want that. That just doesn’t make any sense, Reverend Nunn. I mean, for what possible reason would God not want that?
Reverend Nunn: That’s not for us to say, Charlene. I don’t think we should question his wisdom.
Charlene: I’m not. I’m questioning yours.
Anyway, I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I’ll never forget you.
Reverend Nunn: Charlene, I wish you’d give this some more thought. Let me put you in touch with another minister. Maybe he can counsel you.
Charlene: No. Thanks anyway. I’ll be talking to someone, but I think I’ll keep this one just between me and God. Don’t look so surprised, after all, we have his number too.
Do you see what I mean?
Just this one scene captures a powerful moment in Baptist history: the transition from being more accepting of women’s leadership to rejecting it. I think we forget that this really was a transition.
Although Baptists in 2022 may have forgotten our long history of women in ministry, in the 1980s, Baptist women like Charlene still remembered.
Freewill Baptists and Northern Baptists (American Baptists) were ordaining women in the mid-19th century with more conservative Baptists (such as the SBC) following suit by the 20th. In 1975, for example, Helen Lee Turner scrolled through newspaper clippings and church bulletins looking for evidence of ordained SBC women. She identified 59—including former Baylor professor Sharyn Dowd. Likewise, Leon McBeth estimated in his Women in Baptist Life that more than 1600 women were enrolled in SBC seminaries in 1977—many of whom intended to seek ordination after graduation. By 1982 there were so many SBC women in ministry that the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) sponsored a “Women in Ministry Dinner” alongside the annual SBC meeting. This proved popular enough for a similar gathering in 1983, attracting 33 Baptist women ministers, and, by the 1984 SBC meeting, more than 250 women and men attended a gathering for women in ministry.
So when Charlene—Baptist born and Baptist bred—said that she dreamed of being a preacher “because no one told me I couldn’t,” she was telling historical truth.
She was also telling historical truth when she described how her pastor “and a bunch of other people got together and decided that God doesn’t want” women as ministers. As more and more SBC women began to move into ministerial roles during the 1970s, more and more SBC leaders began to speak out against women in ministry, eventually contributing to the Conservative Resurgence in 1979 and leading to the 1984 resolution (which was passed the same year as the Women in Ministry gathering of more than 250 people) declaring women’s secondary creation. In his Uneasy in Babylon, Barry Hankins tells the story of how the 1984 resolution led to the 1998 SBC statement on women’s submission, which in turn led to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 declaration that only men can serve as head pastors.
While it is true that not all Southern Baptists would have declared Charlene unfit for pastoral leadership in the 1980s, it is also true that by the year 2000 most probably would.
Charlene’s words capture not only the historical significance of the Baptist struggle for women in ministry but also the emotional struggle it continues to cause women. “For the past nine years I’ve come to you with whatever problems, worries or grief I’ve had in my life,” Charlene said to her pastor, “and I really appreciate the way you’ve looked after me. But, I don’t think I can do that anymore….I’ve been up all night, and I just can’t figure out how I can belong to a church that doesn’t think I am fit to preach God’s word.”
The pain and longing in her words echoes the pain and longing of countless women, caught between the scylla of love for their church communities and the charybdis of teachings that deny their calling. Out of the hundreds of letters and messages I have received since writing The Making of Biblical Womanhood, the ones that pain me the most are the women called to ministry and never allowed to serve. The grief expressed in a 1988 sitcom about the senseless denial of women’s leadership is the same grief women feel in 2022.
“That just doesn’t make any sense, Reverend Nunn. I mean, for what possible reason would God not want [women preaching God’s word]?” For what possible reason, indeed.
It is striking to me that when Reverend Nunn answers her question like God answers Job (who are you to question God?), Charlene stops him. She makes it clear that she is not questioning God’s wisdom; she is questioning the wisdom of a man who thinks he is speaking for God.
To be sure, the episode does not advocate for women in ministry on Charlene’s experience alone. Her plea “that just doesn’t make any sense” is primed by an earlier scene juxtaposing Reverend Nunn with a character named Bernice. It is a scene of sheer brilliance. Bernice is an older woman who struggles with memory issues, yet when confronted with Reverend Nunn’s scriptural defense of patriarchy, she meets him head on. (Can’t you just hear Paul in 1 Corinthians? “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”)
We learn that Bernice is a pastor’s kid and, like Charlene, her childhood memories support women in ministry. Bernice reminds Reverend Nunn that for every time Paul seems to silence women, Paul elsewhere showcases women preaching and teaching. Bernice stole my heart (and my argument in The Making of Biblical Womanhood) when she scolded him for forgetting historical context as well as for not knowing how English translations minimize women’s leadership. In one of my many favorite quotes from the episode, she tells Reverend Nunn that women were the first preachers of the gospel.
“Just remember,” she said, “after Christ was crucified on the cross, and all his men had gone home, it was women who stayed until the bitter end. And it was women who first heralded the news of his resurrections. So just put that in your pulpit and smoke it.”
Have I convinced you yet to watch the episode?
If not, here is one last reason: it provides a guide for responding to complementarians.
Ever since I published The Making of Biblical Womanhood, I have struggled with this issue. On the one hand, I recognize complementarians as my brothers and sisters in Christ who hold honest, scriptural convictions. (BTW—my recognition of this is not a courtesy that many complementarians have extended to me.) On the other hand, I believe that complementarianism is wrong and hurts the church (especially women in the church). I have found that navigating these two positions is difficult, to say the least.
Which is why I’m grateful for Charlene. Let me show you what she does.
- She is kind. She talks directly and graciously to Reverend Nunn. She invites him to her house, tells him her concerns, and listens to him. She doesn’t change his mind, and he doesn’t change hers, but they engage with civil dialogue. (Just so you know, neither calls the other a wolf.)
- She is clear. The issue of complementarianism is different than, say, Methodists and Baptists arguing about sprinkling vs. dunking. Why? Because it impacts human dignity and demeans women. “To me,” Charlene says, “it is more than one issue. It is a whole way of thinking about half the world’s population.”
- She stands firm. Charlene refuses to let Reverend Nunn minimize the impact of his convictions. “I just can’t figure out,” she says, “how I can belong to a church that doesn’t think I am fit to preach God’s word.”
- And, finally, she leaves loud. She didn’t simply send Reverend Nunn a bottle of sparkling grape juice with a platitude. She told him she was leaving the church because his position on women in ministry was inconsistent with the Bible and hurt people.
So, I’ll leave you with the words Dean Lyon kept saying to me: “You’ve got to watch it Beth.” You’ve just got to watch it. Not just because it is a good show, but because you are going to learn something important too.
*This is a shout-out to my boss, the Baylor Graduate School Dean Larry Lyon. Not only was he right about the Designing Women episode, but he gave me the support I needed to write a book even while being a full-time academic dean. I can tell you that if more university administrators were like Larry Lyon, academia would be a better place for women.